Posted by: facetothewind | August 25, 2015

Verticalville: Hong Kong

It’s hard to say goodbye for a month. Harder even for the person left behind. Holding on to Chuan’s hand as he’s driving me to the airport, not wanting to let go. But distance is always good for a relationship to give it perspective and meaning.

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Then on the airport train to KLIA, a guy had his feet all over the furniture in spite of the signs everywhere not to do so. It’s just so Malaysian…

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Onward to more civilized places. The first stop on my round the world trip is in Hong Kong where it seems like some sort of fantastical dream of living in Verticalville.

Wooloomooloo Hong Kong

Hong Kongers are quite respectful and decent citizens. It’s a pedestrian friendly city and people don’t push onto the subway like misbehaved children as they do in Malaysia. Here they line up and wait. On the escalators, the standers go to the right and the walkers on the left. Here, a red light mean stop and a sidewalk is not for parking your motorcycle. Hong Kong feels like a grown up place that has evolved over a long time and the product of good upbringing, its people sophisticated, respectful, and elegant. Kuala Lumpur seems really rough around the edges, immature, unrefined —the product of poor upbringing. Interestingly, when I arrived in HK, I couldn’t make sense of Sebby’s directions and so I got hopelessly lost. Two very kind American expats spotted me in my confused state in a crowd and offered to help me. They pointed me in the right direction and gave me 60 HK dollars (!) to catch a cab as I had not yet found an ATM. I was astounded by this gesture which felt like a big hug from my home country. Thank you nameless citizens for helping me out. I wish I had gotten their names.

Hong-Kong-escalators

I came to see Sebastian and his boyfriend, Simon, who was very welcoming and warm.

Friends

But I also came to eat PIZZA! And here I am pigging out on Paesano’s Pizza…

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Victoria Peak Hong Kong

Victoria Peak. (Click to enlarge panorama.)

Saw a very cool retro (but new) car called the Nissan Figaro. It was love at first sight!

Saw a very cool retro (but new) car called the Nissan Figaro. It was love at first sight!

Some photos from around town…

Hong Kong bamboo scaffolding

Hong Kong

Hong Kong skyline 2

Hong Kong skyline

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You can watch the rough cut video of the trip…

Next stop: San Francisco.

Posted by: facetothewind | August 20, 2015

Mid Summer Miscellany

I’m off on a month long trip around the world. Back at the end of September. My trip will take me first to Hong Kong to see Sebastian, then San Francisco to collect Jean. Then we set off to New York to see my friend Anna and sail on the Queen Mary 2 to England. Then a quick visit to London and then off to Brussels, Bruges, and Amsterdam. I’ll be unavailable while on the ship from September 4-11.

For now, here’s a short video of the my midsummer in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca. The video starts with the bus driver to Malacca texting while driving. I was astonished at the risk he took with all of our lives and was so incensed that I reported him to the federal agents here and they’ve opened a case against the company.  I found out that texting while driving a bus is a very common occurrence here in Malaysia. So unbelievably uncivilized. Anyway, then see the building being painted and my 25 floor daily stair workout. Then on to Malacca, Chuan’s playing piano in various places, a monsoon, some flooding and then more fireworks…

Next stop Hong Kong.

Posted by: facetothewind | August 7, 2015

Celebrating One Year Together

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I’m not a big believer in superstition — things like not walking under ladders, touching wood and such — they have no meaning for me. But when Chuan and I first met, we were at a temple in Penang and he said we should put a little wish ribbon up on the pole and that we would get what we asked for. No harm done, so we put one up…

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A year later here we are indeed coupled and paired. Voila! If only it were as easy as tying a ribbon on a pole or asking St. Mildred (my friend Jean’s magical granter of parking spaces and more). The behind the scenes story is that Chuan insisted on loving me as he does, to this day. I am a doubter by nature but he isn’t. He knew right away that I was his man and he made it happen. Within a few days of meeting, he was calling me Hubby and treating me as if he we would be together the rest of our lives…and I let him. I may be stupid in some regards but I’m smart enough to know that at my age, youthful enthusiasm trumps cynicism and trust is more important than doubt. Otherwise it’s a long slow ride to a miserable old age of isolation.

Chuan is as enthusiastic today as he was a year ago, an extraordinary combination of brilliance, simplicity, goofiness, eagerness, passion, and flexibility. He has consistently been by my side in every difficult moment always ready with a tissue, a helping hand, a solution, and a sensible Chinese home remedy. Chuan’s good manners and elegance, his generosity and dedication to caring for the people around him are inspiring for those of us, ahem, who think more of ourselves first. Chuan has made living in this immensely challenging place feel as much a home as possible…where at least my heart has a place to belong.

After a year of his consistent and persistent affection, my heart has softened such that I can now believe once again in the transformative power of love — something I had lost faith in in the post-Sebastian years.

So get out the crackers cuz here come da cheese…my anniversary gift to Chuan. (Thanks Dianna Krall and Bryan Adams. I did buy the song! Depending on the country, you may not be able to hear the music.) Enjoy…

It seems as I get older, among all the things that have become more difficult, chief among them is the ability to avoid the deeper meaning of my interactions. Much as I may try, sometimes I simply can’t.

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A farewell party for the headmaster who got resettled to Australia. In a few more months, I will be saying goodbye, myself.

Case in Point

Tuesday mornings I teach English to a group of Chin refugees from Myanmar. (Read about Chin refugees in the New York Times.) They are Christian children who fled with their parents over the border to Malaysia to avoid the civil war going on in the Chin State in the south of the country. I’m not clear on exactly why or what their circumstances are. Language, cultural, and political barriers prevent me from getting the full story. But what I do know is that these kids are undocumented immigrants in Malaysia, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The refugees sit in political limbo for years waiting, hoping to be resettled in Australia or the United States. Malaysia won’t take them but tolerates them here while they await their resettlement. The Malaysian police are known to hassle them and extort money out of them…which is why I am not showing their faces. But I want you to know their story — as much as I know it in the near-year since I started teaching them.

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The unmarked entrance to the school — unmarked because the students face harassment from the police seeking bribes. They have been known to stop the children on the street and demand money from them and follow them home until they get it from their neighbors and family.

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The school’s washroom.

I won’t lie to you and tell you teaching them is the highlight of my week and how much I look forward to being there at the broken down, stinky classroom with restrooms that would curl your hair in horror. I’m untrained as an English teacher and I’m pretty short on tolerance for screaming kids and cockroach infested, grimy classrooms such as this. I’m not going to get a best-selling book out of the deal and I won’t be considered a folk hero among humanitarians for my one class a week volunteer gig. But I will say that teaching these kids is the most rewarding thing I do all week.

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Someone has finally fixed the banister. Yay!

Each week I walk up the dingy staircase to the noisy classroom teeming with little kids — some of whom are now teenagers but nonetheless are so small I could pick up and throw a teenage boy across a room should I ever need to. Not that I need to. They are mostly well-behaved kids with great respect for their teachers and elders.

When I enter the room, the students all stand up and yell in unison, “Good morning tee-shuh!” Like a judge I ask them to be seated and I begin the lesson. Usually I start with my Word of the Day lesson. I introduce to them a new word and concept, often some sort of moral lesson that I sneak in under the guise of English lessons. Last week was ‘hygiene’ where I taught them the basics of washing hands and keeping their homes and bodies clean to prevent disease. Being a recent typhoid survivor I felt the gravitas of this lesson. The week before that was ‘progress’ and I asked them to write about where they are making progress and where they wish to make more. Before that it was ‘respect.’ Today’s word of the day was to be two words: ‘metaphor’ and ‘simile.’

But when I walked into the class this morning, no one stood up to greet me. My entrance went unnoticed. I was surprised and curious about the lack of good cheer which normally brightens the dismal setting. Two of the boys who are best friends and normally sit next to each other with their legs and arms thrown over each other in boyish affection, today sat a row apart ignoring each other. One had his head down on the desk, the other with a blank look on his face. The girls didn’t greet me either. Hmm, what’s going on here, I wondered? I asked the boys if they had had a fight. They shook their heads. I asked the girls if the boys had had a fight. They also shook their heads no. “Then what’s going on, I asked?” No answer. At their core, they are Asian and negative emotions are considered unsightly, unnecessary and counterproductive. At my core, I’m Californian and awkward silences must be examined, negativity delved into to find resolution.

Occasionally when teaching, I’ve found it necessary to ditch my lesson plan scratched in my notebook and ‘go with the flow’ to address what’s needed by the students in the moment. Today was one of those days. So instead of launching into metaphors and similes, I wrote on the board, “WORD OF THE DAY: MOOD/MOODY.” I asked them, “Does anyone know the meaning of the word MOOD? Let’s say it together — it sounds like FOOD…MOOD.” No one repeated the word with me. I was bombing like a bad comedian. I asked the girls with the dictionaries to look up the word and read the definition — they remember a word more if they look it up themselves. Then I wrote some moods on the board for them: Sad, Glad, Mad, Happy, Excited, Angry, Bored. I asked the boys to sit next to each other as they always do and to answer my questions in a few sentences, “What is your mood today and why?” They silently set about writing. I watched the pencils wiggling and the lip-biting as they scrutinized their papers. Then I asked to see what they wrote hoping that I would get some insight into the strange silence. Curiously they weren’t shy about sharing their papers with me.

One of the boys wrote that he was feeling lonely because his girlfriend doesn’t want him anymore. He used the word lovelorn. I couldn’t believe he used that word! Clearly he had done some research into his broken heart so that he could articulate it. He also wrote that his phone died. Jeez, double whammy, kid. No WONDER you’re so bummed. For kids today, phones are arguably more important than friends. They are the conveyance devices of attention and love and some connection to the outside world, especially for these kids who are so cut off by their poverty and undocumented status. So I could empathize with his pain.

While the others were still writing, I sat down next to the lovelorn one and looked him in the eye (which I later learned is confrontational in Chin culture) and said, “You know, feeling lonely and sad is OK, it’s a part of life. And sometimes you will feel pain in life. Just remember that you have your friends here and they will be your friends even without your phone and girlfriend.” He braced himself with his arms around his chest and writhed a bit. I am guessing about 35% of what I said made it through the language barrier. Still, if he heard the words ‘sad is OK’ and ‘friend,’ he got the message.

This student is the oldest in the class and his broken heart and phone had a sort of emotional domino effect. His retreat to the back of the room by himself cut him off from his best friend and cuddle buddy who seemed so forlorn without him. And the girls — well, like most of the time, they defer to the boys. Their papers didn’t reveal anything as they said they were happy and glad, the default mood from Asian children…at least on the surface.

At midpoint in the session I went around the class and asked for them to tell me in one word what their mood was. I got the usual happies and glads. But when I got to the lovelorn puppy, his mood was happy on the outside, sad on the inside. Hey! Progress…last week’s word. Somehow just for him to pencil out his pain seemed to help him. And relocating him back to his buddy re-engaged him. Shortly after this I wrote on the corner of the board my travel schedule to inform the kids in advance of my upcoming month-long trip to America and Europe. One of the girls yelled, “No teachuh!” showing a shocked and disappointed face. I think she was expressing some sadness that I would be gone. For me this comes as a heartwarming surprise. I never really thought that they could possibly enjoy my class or me as a teacher.

Wish Lists

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My name is Dim. I’m 10 years old. I want to play violin and I need a violin but I don’t have one. I need to buy. I don’t have money. When I grow up I can buy a violin but now I’m young but I want to learn now. I need violin lessons but I can’t afford them. Some people have a violin. I can’t learn without one hear. I’m really really like a violin. (sic)

One week in class I had them write up wish lists — something that they would really like to have in their lives. They got out their papers and wrote away and I photographed some of their requests when they finished. Here are some of them…

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Hello. My name is Tammy. I want to learn to dance and I need study and learn dance lesson. I don’t know how to dance but I want to learn. Sometime my lovely sister teach me how to dance but she doesn’t teach base. I would like to learn base and I need to try more and more to know dance base and lesson. Now I don’t know base and lesson. I know how to dance but I cannot dance when I don’t know dance base. I cannot do without Jesus. I can only do with Jesus. So I need to pray to Jesus. I believe someday he will give me answer.

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My name is Hang Thung Lia. I come from Myanmar. I have two brothers and I don’t have any sisters. I want to play guitar. I need to study a Guitar. I think one day I will become a music teacher.

These of course are heart-wrenching to read. The kids are hopeful and yet have no real reason to be. They’re poor as dirt living in substandard conditions, at the mercy of a vast bureaucracy which keeps them in limbo status for years. One of my students has been in KL for 6 years awaiting resettlement. Her plea to Jesus seems like a desperate call for someone to listen to her.

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Schoolmarm

When I first stepped into this volunteer teaching gig arranged by the United Nations, I really had no idea how to teach children. To be honest, I don’t even like kids. I find them to be annoyingly loud and too random in thought. Helium voices, crumb snatchers, disease spreaders. I avoid kids whenever possible. But I needed to do something productive during my time here in Kuala Lumpur and as a native English speaker, I have a much-needed skill to share. So I took it on, bought a how-to book, took a one day workshop, and watched some YouTube videos. My American friend Cynthia who teaches at an international school here gave me some folders with handout worksheets for the kids. I attended class with her a couple times as her TA. All of this was my self-imposed boot camp to be an ESL teacher and I certified myself.

The time came for me to solo teach, so I hopped in a taxi and got lost, almost giving up but found the unmarked door at the last moment. I walked up the stinky stairs and strode into class armed with materials but empty handed in confidence and experience. Checking my notes on exactly what I would cover that day, I just stepped up to the board and gave it a try.

My teaching was decidedly bookworm-ish. Word of the day? For goddsake how boring is that? One day last year I walked in to find 2 new teachers from England had taken over the adjoining class to teach the younger kids. They had battery operated portable speakers attached to their iPhones and a guitar and they had the kids up on their chairs singing and clapping. It was hard for Miss Schoolmarm Me to conduct my dull class with all the commotion of the super-ESL teachers next door doing the Hokey-friggin-Pokey. They were putting their left feet in and their left feet out and shaking them all about. At one point I wrote the word ROWDY on the board and had the students look it up. I was unamused and secretly envious of this duo who could motivate children instantly.

I went home that day feeling like a total failure, ready to quit. Clearly I didn’t have the skills to teach like that nor the charisma to excite children to jump to their feet and sing songs in English. And I really, really hate the Hokey Pokey. What good is the Hokey Pokey going to do for them when they get resettled? Wouldn’t they be better off knowing good hygiene and past participles?

Next week I came in expecting to be further humiliated by the Up With People ESL-ers, but they weren’t there. The classroom was silent. They didn’t show up. I, however, showed up with my word of the week: COMPASSION. I had them write persuasive letters to someone they know who smokes to please stop smoking. I had them read books and identify the 5W’s. As a nod to the ESL teachers on speed, I offered a game of charades. And a fake chat show where we would interview each other.

The weeks and months went on and I began to feel more comfortable in my Schoolmarm skin. Perhaps the biggest lesson I taught was the one I taught to myself about just showing up. Being there for the kids, week after week, month after month is enough. They’re like little chicks and they imprint easily and now they’ve adopted me in all my boring, middle-aged, lacklusteredness (that could very well be the word of the day, next week).

Coming from a wealthy country to Malaysia has been one order of challenging for me — to face the grit and grime of an undeveloped nation on a daily basis. I’m so easily defeated and vanquished by it all. But to teach refugees who come to this place as the shining city where everything is possible is something else. It takes every bit of courage on my part to do it and then when it’s done I am so touched by them. They’re virtually undefeatable, these kids. I couldn’t tell them that no one is listening and they may never get resettled and if they do, they will be miniature misfits in a world of giants who will have them cleaning Walmart stores on the midnight shift somewhere in Oklahoma. But I can’t tell them that. They’ve taught me a thing or two about courage. Courage to leave your country and start over. Courage to be happy with what you have when it’s so little. Listening to these kids has given me confidence to teach them and share with them what little talent I have.

I may not be Jesus, and maybe I don’t have the ability to grant them their wish lists, but I show up and I listen. And in a world that mostly ignores and exploits them, it’s maybe not such a small contribution.

Posted by: facetothewind | August 3, 2015

A January poem for August

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Poem by January Handl • Photography by David Gilmore

When the pain is acute,
I am cut adrift from the anchor
Of my tap into the stream
Of life
Life with all its entirety
All its vibrancy
All its venom and vice
All.

If, when a pause occurs
I am awake,
I am immediately immersed
In the giant gratitude
For perception
Even the ills, and limits
Even the long-suffering idiocies
I endured while learning to be
Human
Even the constant forgetting
Of hard-earned honors in
humility and
Trust.

I have been twice-visited today
With a grace denied me the past few years-
The kind that reminds me that this
Wonder of an experience,
This thing we call life
This leap toward
Surrender
Toward love
Is a precious gift
Offered in each moment
This moment.
This.

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Posted by: facetothewind | July 28, 2015

Paved Paradise: a Visit to Cameron Highlands

Cameron Highlands destruction

Since clear cutting its forests, Cameron Highlands has become known for its mudslides as much as for its cool climate. See article. 

Joni Mitchell nailed it in her song Big Yellow Taxi:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum 
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em

You see, in Asia, cutting down the trees and catching all the butterflies and putting them in a money-making museum or making them into decorative coasters would be considered good use for nature. Peace and quiet be damned — that’s not going to make you a dime and therefore it’s not a priority.

Cameron Highlands morning market

Such is the case with Cameron Highlands, a once beautiful mountain top retreat 3 hours from Kuala Lumpur and a mile high in the sky. But what was once a chill place to enjoy the cool weather, the birds, butterflies, and flowers now is a place full of traffic jams, overburdened parking lots, and bustling markets selling junky tourist crap. The only tranquility we found in Cameron was in the tea plantations (which are clear cut tropical rain forests now teeming with tea) and the Butterfly Farm where they charged us, yes, a dollar and half to see ’em (well, $1.31 to be exact).

Cameron Highlands traffic jam

The tea plantations really are beautiful and worth visiting. Did you know tea is the most widely consumed beverage (and has been for centuries) on the planet? And that it is actually a camellia plant?

Cameron Highlands Boh Plantation

We visited and toured two of the Boh Tea plantations. The tour wasn’t really much as the process of harvesting and making tea is literally cut and dried. They have beautiful cantilevered cafeteria featuring rude service and less-than-fabulous baked goods and their own freshly brewed teas…most of which were oddly out of stock “FINISHED” and yet sold down the hall in the gift shop. Hmm. Couldn’t quite figure out that one.

Cameron Highlands Boh Tea Plantation

This trip to Cameron was a chance to get away from KL with Chuan and his mother and his Australian Aunt (his mother’s sister in law). Silly me, I imagined sitting in flowering gardens listening to birds and reading. In fact we spent most of the weekend in the car stuck in traffic or avoiding head-on collisions with moronic drivers. Chuan’s mother appears to be expressing something in this photo…

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And the hotel was a favorite for Saudi tourists, no doubt the women in burkas seeking refuge from the Malaysian heat. But an Arab hot spot means lots of unruly children and men shouting and smoking in non-smoking rooms while the silent women waddle about draped like ghosts in black sheets, only their eyes exposed. I personally find it creepy to be in a restaurant watching someone shoveling food under a black cape.

Anyway, it wasn’t a complete failure of a weekend. I did actually enjoy getting to know Chuan’s mother and Aunt a bit better. They’ve held me with tacit acceptance so perhaps the time away was helpful for us as there’s nothing like spending 3 days cooped up in a car on winding roads to bring out the real you. We mostly got along and were gracious and flexible. But for me it was a stressful trip witnessing the environmental degradation and failing to contain my disappointment. Frankly, Malaysia is undeniably overcrowded with over 30 million citizens + millions of foreigners in a country that is only slightly larger than New Mexico. The flowers in the little gardens at the hotel were sweet, the tea plentiful and the cool weather a delightful change. It was fun seeing that the plant palette in Cameron was similar to that of San Francisco because of the 5,000 foot elevation. The magical and mystical (and poisonous) brugmansia were everywhere, as well as dahlias, princess flowers, and strawberries. We did find an organic veggies stand and practically cleaned them out!

It’s remarkable how Malaysians have turned this once little country village into a miniature Kuala Lumpur complete with jackhammers, pushy crowds, reckless drivers, bumper to bumper traffic and about 30% fewer parking spaces than cars. Oh here, just watch the video which starts out with a few miscellaneous clips from KL…

And here’s a photo mosaic gallery of some shots of the trip and some photographic miscellany. Click on one and use the arrow to advance…

A little follow up on Taysif…Seems he also had typhoid fever and started on a course of Ciprofloxacyn. And now that Ramadan is finished and he is able to eat and drink again, he’s looking good! His mood is back up and though he’s still considerably thinner than when I first met him, his lights have come back on. Heartwarming. Thanks to those of you who offered to help him, but he was able to afford the antibiotics on his own. I told him about you and he was very touched and asked if any of you want to marry him.

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So it’s back to life in KL as usual in mid summer—the dry season. I’m still teaching the refugee kids and spending late afternoons at the pool guessing where the various ill-behaved people are from. It’s my poolside pastime.

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Click to enlarge panorama.

And one final and ironic photo. I noticed an iPhone panoramic billboard right near my apartment building that has a picture of the Tucson desert…

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What is this trying to tell me? Of all the places in the world that they could have chosen for that particular billboard, they chose Tucson.

Posted by: facetothewind | July 19, 2015

The Eyes of Envy?

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American Gay Marriage as Seen from Southeast Asia

When I was growing up in rural Florida in the 70s and 80s, gay life was secreted behind closed doors. Gay bars were named things like “Secrets” or “Whispers” and hidden in nondescript strip malls or side streets where you could get bashed in the parking lot. It was a disgrace to one’s family to be gay — a fate worthy of being thrown out, fired from one’s job, publicly ridiculed, or even beaten while a blind eye was turned on you.

Now at the age of 51 as an expat American, I sit in my office looking out over the predominantly Muslim city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, a place that seems perpetually stuck in that gay un-friendly time in my life.

I’m chatting with various local friends who are all chirping about the recent verdict of SCOTUS regarding gay marriage. I sent them a picture of the White House illuminated in rainbow colors, a sight I was certain had been Photoshopped, but in fact, it hadn’t. The “wows” starting coming in on my global chat apps. Even I was incredulous — the White House tricked out in the colors of the rainbow? What happened to the country I turned away from, thinking it would never grow up?

For me, living in Malaysia has effectively recreated my sweaty Florida childhood complete with all its backward thinking. Here, in 2015, gay anything is censored from TV and films. So it’s as if we don’t exist — just like I didn’t exist in backwater Florida late last century. For gay locals here in Asia, the Supreme Court verdict is pure entertainment enjoyed on uncensored social media. It’s an expression of freedom that they will never know in Malaysia, a country cuffed forever by its colonial past. And its unforgiving religion.

With the photo of the colorful White House, I included a caption to my Malaysian friends saying something to the effect that, ‘this was a hard-won victory — the result of decades of people coming out and being willing to risk their dignity and refusing to be considered second class citizens.’ There was a resounding silence. This very American attitude of ‘fight for your rights’ falls on deaf ears to most Asians, who by culture, accept what they’re given without complaints, from the meal that wasn’t cooked properly, to the cars blocking the sidewalk, to the widespread homophobia they face on a daily basis. Nothing subversive will be said or done. And as a result, nothing changes. It’s a hand-me-down of 6th Century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s teaching: Nothing is done and nothing is left undone.

It simply isn’t the nature of Asians to act up and fight back. And when it has been done in the past, it’s usually met swiftly with the long arm of the law. And so you end up with a whole continent — and the majority of the world’s population — silently taking their lumps as gay people.

This has never been the ethos of America, right from the revolutionary beginning. It is in our blood to fight for what we believe in. American entitlement and the absence of “the tall poppy syndrome” keep Americans always re-inventing themselves, the most charismatic leading the way. In Asia, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, and please, no shouting, you’re making a scene.

Malaysia’s penal code is a stern mixture of Islamic and British Colonial law. As a result gay sex is a punishable offense with up to 20 years of jail time and caning. Gay bars here in Kuala Lumpur are modern day speakeasies subject to being raided by the police. Recently, the former deputy prime minister was jailed for 5 years on charges of sodomy — punitive residue from British colonial rule.

Amid my oh-so-American motivational rants to come out and get into action, I received a text from a Malay friend. By most people’s standards, he would be considered a prize catch in his mid-30 — handsome, professional, and educated in England. But he remains perpetually single here in Malaysia because, like most Asians, he lives at home with his family. And he’s Muslim. What this translates to is a secret life as a gay man and a lot of familial pressure to marry and have children.

I asked him if he’d been thinking that maybe he should go to America and find a husband and exercise his right to a green card. He shied away from the idea saying that it’s more likely that as a foreigner and a Muslim, he would face a new kind of oppression in America that he doesn’t face here in his home country: glass ceilings and Islamophobia. So it’s a toss up for him — the freedom to love and express himself as a gay man somewhere else or the acceptance of being a Muslim man in a Muslim country with all the attendant privileges (and restrictions) of that.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life in Southeast Asia, it’s that people here are not fixers or changers. They don’t look at something and think, as we Americans do, “What’s wrong with this and how can I improve it?” Here the prevailing wisdom is more about making things work as they are without calling undue attention to oneself. And that keeps Malaysia, India, Myanmar, Lao, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the like perpetually behind the times when it comes to human rights, whether it’s the rights of women and ethnic minorities, or in this case, gays.

The Malaysian government spins the gay victories of America as cautionary tales from a land whose moral compass is spinning out of control. And the locals here watch on YouTube with raised eyebrows and disbelief — something they could never imagine or execute, themselves. It simply isn’t in their nature to foment a groundswell of change. They may rainbowfy their Facebook profile pic in solidarity, but that’s about as far as their activism will go.

But I as a Westerner think it is my nature to change and for the first time in years I felt a sense of pride as a far-flung American. That is a change. All those years of public advocacy work I did in the U.S., all my parents’ PFLAG meetings in Florida have paid off and maybe it’s time to dig out my American passport and come home. But this time I will be with my Malaysian boyfriend with a fiancé visa.

Posted by: facetothewind | July 14, 2015

Falling in Slow Motion

Me with Taysif before his downfall.

Me with Taysif before his downfall.

I met Taysif one day last fall when I first moved into my apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is a young man (25, I think) from Bangladesh. For those of you who don’t know, Bangladesh ranks in the top 30 poorest nations on earth with close to 160 million people crammed into a country the size of Iowa. It has a long and complicated history in the Indian Subcontinent, but essentially it split off from Pakistan in 1971 in a bitter war that ended with one of the worst genocides in human history.

Photo from the Borgen Project.

Photo from the Borgen Project.

Add to the political and economic mess, climate change has caused dramatic shifts in its agricultural industry. Many Bangladeshis have fled to neighboring countries seeking a basic living and to send money home to their families. Thus the intersection of Taysif and my life occurred in Malaysia, a reasonably prosperous country that attracts thousands of migrant workers hoping to feast at the banquet table. Or at least catch a few scraps which are probably more generous than back home.

Our initial meeting occurred poolside at the apartment where I live which is a bit like a mini United Nations with fake waterfall and phony hanging plants. Taysif and I began our friendship with a handshake and a touch to the heart — a sweet gesture that marks all Bangladeshis. Our conversations are in broken English with both of us scratching our heads to try to either convey or understand the various tenses of English spoken in only one tense: the present.

Taysif works as a server in the rooftop bar and restaurant 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. He makes about $15 USD a day…for him it’s a salary he’d never make in Bangladesh. But to earn this, he has left his hometown and family 1600 miles behind. Now he shares a small apartment with 7-10 others depending on who’s in need of housing at the moment. He has never seemed defeated by his challenging circumstance, either by virtue of his naturally cheerful disposition or simply by his youth.

But then he got sick. I had been teaching him and one of his co-workers English for two hours each Saturday morning in the lobby of our apartment. He started showing up late looking pale and leaving early. Then he stopped coming entirely. Over the last few months of seeing him at the pool, the fullness and good cheer has gone out of his face, he has lost a lot of weight and his eyes have circles under them. For a long time I just thought it was that he had been drinking too much and not getting enough sleep. It is now clear that something bigger is going on. He thinks he may have hepatitis though I don’t see yellow in his eyes.

I only have about 30% comprehension of what Taysif actually says to me and so when I ask him what kind of care he has gotten, I’m unable to get a clear medical history from him. No matter, it’s clear to me that he’s not well and isn’t getting the care he needs.

Today I pressed him a bit more to seek proper medical attention. He shrugged it off saying he would after Ramadan which ends in 3 days. His breath was terrible and I had to keep about 3 feet away from him when he spoke. His lips are cracked due to the Ramadan-induced dehydration — no food or water may be taken from 5:30 am to 7:30 pm…a tough regimen even for those in the best of health.

The conversation about his health turned to one of economics and his country and then to religion. This is a conversation I try to avoid with Muslims or, frankly, any religious person of any faith. But here, especially in a Muslim country, a gay person is facing an uphill battle and I find it just best to avoid the topic entirely. Perhaps his fasting caused a lapse in his respect for my atheism (which he knows about from previous chats) as he started pressing me to get a copy of the Quran in English and to read it. “No, Taysif, I have no interest in the Quran, thanks. No, really. I have no interest in the Bible, either. No. None. None at all. You’re not going to convince me to read it. Sorry. No it’s not going to change my life. It’s not going to happen so stop asking me!”

I changed the subject and asked him if he was happy. Kind of a dumb question but what the hell. His answer surprised me. He said, “No I not happy and if I die from sickness then I happy.” Wow. I couldn’t believe he said that. “Really, you want to die? Why not just jump off the roof?” I felt a little stupid for saying that, but I was still holding on to some belief that he was just kidding me or goading me…he might as well kill himself since he didn’t convince me to read the Quran.

I realized that he wasn’t kidding and that perhaps his sickness was a death wish or he was feeling suicidal. I stopped looking at the skyline and turned my attention directly to him. He looked me in the eye and said he needed help to change his life. “What can I do Taysif? There’s not much I can do for you. I’m not Obama. I’m not wealthy and I can’t marry you.” He replied, “That’s what everyone tells me: ‘There’s nothing I can do to help.’ ” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and showed me a dead thread of conversation he had had with a German tourist. The guy was offering to help him but once he returned to Germany, the chats on Viber stopped. I saw several unanswered text messages on Taysif’s column. It ended with him writing, “Are you still there?” Apparently the German guy was not.

“I’m sorry, Taysif. I wish I could help you more. Keep practicing your English and keep your eyes open for new opportunities.” There was a dulled silence as if he’d heard this before.

Then out of the blue he said something profound, something that usually doesn’t come from a person with a very rudimentary understanding of English: “It isn’t my fault I was born in Bangladesh.” His eyes fell to the floor and I scanned his bony body, his dress shirt hanging on his shoulders, and I felt this eerie feeling that I had back in the day when I used to do psychedelics. It’s that momentary understanding that we’re all in this together and that this man before me may not speak my language or believe in anything I believe in, but he’s still a human and he’s still my brother. To pry myself away from this touching moment I was going to have to toughen up and shut that hippie thinking down. For me to leave him there at the poolside and go to my apartment with my piano and the view, would require that I turn my back on him and accept the unevenness of the world that landed me with abundance. And him with nothing.

I grabbed his shoulder, looked him in the eye and said, “You’re right, Taysif. It’s not your fault that you were born Bangladeshi. It’s not your fault that you were born poor. It’s not your fault.” I felt like Robin Williams in Goodwill Hunting.

He was silent and seemed on the edge of tears. He turned to leave saying, “Sorry I bother you. Go swim, go back to your apartment, take a nap.” And then he went back to work. I think he meant that without any malice or envy.

And that is exactly what I did.

Posted by: facetothewind | July 6, 2015

The Price of “Adventurous Eating” in the Developing World

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This time I’ve really done it. Look at my belly! I look like a pregnant hairy woman and yet I weigh in at about 137 pounds. So that’s not fat. It’s gas and I’m about to lift off from my apartment and float out over Kuala Lumpur like a balloon and zoom past the Petronas Towers giving a friendly wave and a little toot. Some tourists will take a selfie with me photo-bombing by in the background. Their videos will go viral…or bacterial.

For a month I’ve been sick with diarrhea, nausea, extreme bloating, some fatigue, but curiously no fever. So I figured it was traveler’s diarrhea which is all too common in my life since I left the United States. I know TMI. Well, I finally went to the hospital and got a battery of tests done last Friday. Today when I turned my phone ringer on, I noticed several missed calls from the doctor at the local Indian hospital here. He asked me to come in (uh oh) and here’s what he showed me…

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There it is (underlined). I have tested positive for typhoid fever. Apparently I managed to nip it in the bud with antibiotics before it could have been fatal.

Typhoid is spread by food or water contaminated with human feces. I could have avoided this with a simple vaccination but I somehow never managed to get it thinking I was going to a developed nation. Hah! Malaysia has a veneer of being more developed than it really is. It is a very, very multicultural society with a huge influx of unskilled foreign workers staffing the bars and restaurants. We don’t know what the hygienic practices are in their homeland but whatever it is, it has translated to my contracting food poisoning 4 times in a year, one of which could have taken my life.

typhoid-map

IN ALL THE YEARS of traveling in Thailand, I’ve never been sick and I was doing lots of adventurous eating at street stalls there…something that is unadvisable in Malaysia. So one has to conclude that since they really don’t have much foreign labor in Thailand and it’s the Thai mama in the kitchen or at the street side wok, that over a lifetime she has figured out how to cook and not kill the tourists. But here in Malaysia, typhoid is considered “strongly endemic” (red) according the Wikipedia map above. The food and beverage workers in Malaysia are mostly Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indonesian, Filipino and Indian immigrants. And those countries don’t have a great reputation when it comes to food cleanliness.

Boil it, cook it, peel it, or FORGET IT!

Click here for a quick overview of typhoid fever, how not get it, and how to treat it if you do. First, get vaccinated! But since that’s only partially effective, I also recommend always carrying with you a supply of Ciprofloxacin which you can buy cheap over the counter in Southeast Asia. Because I treated my diarrhea early with Cipro, I managed to avoid the worst of typhoid, not even knowing that’s what I had. Now I just have the decimation of my intestinal flora to deal with, which explains the bloating.

My other advice: avoid eating out in Malaysia. Just cook for yourself here as you cannot count on even an expensive restaurant to practice proper hygiene. If you do eat out, beware of restaurants (no matter where they are or how fancy they are) whose staff speaks no English or don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Lots of staff mingling around with nothing to do translates into a lot of hands touching your food and you are increasing your odds of something going wrong. If a server can’t answer a simple question about the menu, leave!

Malaysians speak English and are more likely to know about good hygiene than the wild card of foreigner workers who might have just arrived and received no training at all. An established Chinese restaurant staffed by a Chinese family is likely a safe bet. A big name Indian restaurant with staff who speak English is probably a safe bet also. A restaurant with all foreign staff is a gamble. Street food is risky and avoid the mixed rice (buffet) restaurants with trays of food sitting out. It may look tempting, but flies can and do walk on feces and then on that food…and in tropical heat, bacteria grows fast. So eat in established places, eat indoors, eat freshly cooked food. It’s the same advice I’d give about anywhere in the developing world, but seeing the numbers of Lamborghinis and Bentleys on the streets here in KL, I guess I forgot that it’s still a developing nation…and those people have domestic servants who cook for them.

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Chuan wrote to me that he was angry about this — not at me — but at what’s happened to his country that this should happen and he could have lost his boyfriend over someone’s carelessness in the kitchen. He isn’t the only one to express this to me. A number of Malaysians have said to me that they feel the country’s huge influx of foreign workers has deteriorated the quality of life and standard of living. This is not the Malaysia they grew up with.

I’m reluctant to blame the workers themselves, they are poor immigrants taking advantage of a financial opportunity that has been made available to them. But they have no investment in Malaysia — they are here for a brief period to make as much money as possible and then go back home. That circumstance doesn’t breed excellence or pride in one’s work and as I’ve found out, it does breed germs — the unintended consequences of being a mercenary in a place that wants a cheap labour source. As one Malaysian-Indian friend said, “Our hardware may appear developed but the software is still behind.”

Posted by: facetothewind | June 23, 2015

Surviving Penang and Pai

Offering myself a toast at the pool for having survived my recent holiday…

Kuala Lumpur cocktail

Ever have one of those trips that when you get back, you feel like you should be awarded some sort of medal for making it back alive? I can’t say that EVERYTHING went wrong on this trip, but a lot did, especially early on. Chuan and I drove to Penang on a work trip (for him). On the way we stopped at a roadside food court and I got, guess what? Food poisoning. Wehoo, again. This is the 3rd time in Malaysia in less than a year, and the 4th, if I count poisoning myself with the kukui nuts. It was, after all food, and it was poison.

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Dianna from Pai arrived in Penang and on her 2nd day out she got very ill with mono. We’re not quite sure how THAT happened but it did. Here she is on the plane back. Sick and tired, and sick and tired of Air Asia and the yackity people aboard the flying kampung. Considering the MERS scare and the fever checkers in the airport, I’d say she was lucky to be flying.

Air Asia

To add to my diarrhea, I also picked up a common cold virus on this flight with the requisite cough. So my cough was back in full swing after 5 weeks of it since Lang Tengah. Then I took off for Pai from Chiang Mai. The 12 seater plane is always a novel thing, getting to watch the pilots do their thing.

Kan Air Pai

Here’s me waiting for the staff of the guesthouse to pick me up. They were late enough that by the time they arrived, all the Chinese selfie and wefies had left. I waited and waited without a sim card. Finally they showed up.

Kan Air

Then there was the heatwave. Or was it just the normal summer for northern Thailand? Anyway, 38.9 C (below) translates to 102 F. Add in considerable humidity and the lack of widespread air conditioning, I’d say it’s a miracle in Pai that people don’t just keel over dead from the heat like they would if they had that kind of weather in Paris, for example.

heat wave Pai

I ended up sharing my bungalow with a notoriously nocturnal tokay gecko in the roof rafters by my door. Tokays are adorable but if you’ve ever heard them sing, you might think less cuddly thoughts. You can click here and hear what it sounds like. It’s something like a little “Ahem, I’m about to sing for you and destroy your sleep.” And then it earns its name by yelling TOKAY!! TOKAY!! TOKAY!! about 5 times and then it goes silent. For 20 minutes. And then it starts again. ALL NIGHT LONG. But it has some sort of weird otherwordly quality to the sound as if it is being amplified through an old plastic sound system. I asked the owner of the Pairadise Guesthouse to move the little guy and they said they would. But they didn’t. I tried to nap all day but they were doing low season construction on a number of bungalows.

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So for 3 nights a tokay lizard sang me awake and saws and hammers kept me up all day until I finally changed guesthouses. I moved to the funky good vibes of Ing Doi Guesthouse to get some much needed sleep.

Ing Doi guest house Pai Thailand

And then the monsoons came. I was in one of those quaint little grass shacks with the thatched roofs when the rain began dripping on my face, bed, and laptop, just as I was about to have my first night’s sleep…on day 4. I finally just let myself have a very pissy American shit fit. I started yelling and screaming so hard, kicking the mattress like I was trying to swim ashore from a sinking ship. I think I may have sharted some diarrhea at that point. But go ahead Gilmore, you’re in the middle of nowhere and no one is gonna hear you, gurl. So, I moved the bed, did a double dose of Benadryl, covered my computer with towels and woke up the next morning hungover and wrung out.

Well, all things come to pass and so did this. Jake the owner came and fixed the roof and thank god there was no serenading serpent.

Now the good part of the trip.

After a couple nights of sleep, a fantastic massage from the local lady boy May, some wonderfully delicious food from Om Garden, some morning swims with Mark, my cough broke. It just stopped. I put myself on cipro to take care of the diarrhea and lo and behold I was starting to have a good trip!

Om Garden Carrot cake Pai

Here’s some food porn for you. Above is the legendary carrot cake of Om Garden Cafe in Pai. It truly is a religious experience and the creation of the fabulous Anon. You just have no idea if you’ve never tried it. I hear his secret is pineapple in the batter.

Fruit Factory Pai

And above is the amazingly wonderful, creamy and tangy passionfruit ice cream pie from the Fruit Factory. The mint on top is a wonderful touch.

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Here’s Anon and Mark (from Om Garden) on their new piece of land in the hills. The soil is a gorgeous orange and the land has fantastic panoramic views. Anon gets out his buckets and fetches water from the pond to water the trees they’ve planted.

Art in Chai Pai Thailand

Daytime in the summer in Pai was spent in my bungalow with a wet towel and a fan trying to stay cool. Late afternoon, it’s off to Fluid, the farang party pool for a swim and some skin-on potato wedges.

Then nighttime, it’s off to the walking street food carts or to catch an open mic performance at one of the many cafés like Art in Chai (above). Pai has such a good feeling to it — friendly people, extraordinarily good food, rice paddies, and mountain views. And it’s all walkable, which coming from Kuala Lumpur, is such a special treat!

Pai Thailand walking street

Here’s the video of the trip, which goes all the way back to Chuan playing piano in KL and a trip with Mark and Anon to Malacca and then progresses from there to Penang and Pai. Enjoy…

A couple other things…

Rats Kuala Lumpur

Just in case you thought I made it up about the rats in KL, see the above article. Note that my local Malay market, Chow Kit, is mentioned. So, I designed a t-shirt that I’m going to get printed up and proudly wear…

KL-T-shirt-mockup

What do you think?

AND, a bonus photo montage of the last few weeks: Malacca, Penang, and Pai. Click to enlarge and advance with your arrow keys, or hover over to see the captions…

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